By Mursed Alam & Mosarrap H. Khan
Recently, Mr. Garga Chatterjee published an article on some of West Bengal Chief Minister’s attempts at ‘appeasing’ the Muslim community in the state before the Assembly Elections in 2016. This article is a critique of Mr. Chatterjee’s piece.
At the outset, let us make it absolutely clear that we don’t write this to defend the policies of the TMC Government towards Muslims in Bengal. We also acknowledge some of the insightful observations made by Chatterjee and share his concern that the policies of the TMC Government might end up profiting a few self-serving Muslim leaders. And the present government’s policies might not be able to improve the bleak socio-economic codition of Bengali Muslims as a whole. However, we disagree with his use of the clichéd phrase, ‘Muslim appeasement’ and especially the language of critique which, we think, might end up defeating his purpose.
The Concept of ‘Muslim Appeasement’
The dictionary meaning of the word, ‘appeasement’, denotes ‘the act of appeasing’ or, in other words, ‘making peace with someone’. This act implicitly suggests that peace is made with someone who is hostile or waging a war. If we apply this to the domain of Indian political discourse in the last three decades, this would suggest that the supposed ‘Muslim appeasement’ is an effort at making peace with Indian Muslims.
To put it another way, a need for appeasement arose because Indian Muslims had been supposedly hostile or fighting a war against the state or the majority Hindu population. One could translate this metaphor of hostility/war in two distinct ways: first, by drawing on the image of Muslims from pre-Partition India, one could say that Muslims were still militantly trying to divide the nation; second, in post-Partition India, Muslims are waging a war against the majority by laying claim to its resources in terms of jobs and other social security measures.
The term ‘Muslim appeasement’ gained a new acceptance in Indian lexicon following the blatant Hindutva politics of the BJP and the RSS during the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement. The movement claimed that it was against the appeasement of the Muslim community by the ruling Congress. The bone of contention in this ‘appeasement’ debate has always been (among others) the demand for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and the cancellation of the Haj subsidy to the Muslim community for going to pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of Islam. (That the Muslim community has often asked the Indian government to remove the Haj subsidy is a different debate altogether.)
While the need for a UCC is a matter of debate, we are not really sure how the Indian Muslim community has been able to snatch away jobs and other benefits from the majority community. If we go by the statistics of the Sachar Committee Report, it becomes clear that Indian Muslims, instead of being given any special privilege, have rather been the deprived community as they are kept outside reservation in job and educational institutions, which has provided some amount of economic mobility among the depressed communities (SCs and STs). Owing to political compulsions, while such benefits have been extended (and continues being extended) to other members of the majority community (such as OBCs), Indian Muslims continue to be deprived despite the tokenism of allotting them some of these benefits under the aegis of OBC and SC communities.
If anything we must infer from this debate on ‘Muslim appeasement’, it is this that Indian Muslims have been constitutionally deprived for being Muslims. The constitution of a free country has punished them for not being ‘Hindu’. In other words, Indian Muslims have not been appeased but have been kept at an arm’s length from legitimate claims because of their faith.
The charge of ‘Muslim appeasement’ becomes all the more problematic when applied to Muslims in West Bengal, who form more than a quarter of the population. That is, almost one in every four in West Bengal is Muslim.
Of Muslims in West Bengal…
The migration of most of the elite Muslims during the partition of India (1947) to Pakistan and now Bangladesh left behind a disenfranchised community. The subsequent indifference of the ‘secular democratic’ state to the bleak condition of Muslims has further exacerbated the problem.
The recent ASGG Report/Preliminary Report on the Status of Muslims in West Bengal (2014) reiterates the concerns expressed in such national commissions headed by justice Sachar and Misra. Muslims are grossly underrepresented in the political and economic life in Bengal and their socio-cultural situation fares no better than the dalits. This is, however, not a new finding.
Let us look at some of the findings of the report. 83% of Muslims live in villages and only 17% (national average is 36%) live in urban areas. This suggests Muslims in West Bengal have less access to modern amenities and opportunities to improve their lot. Most of them earn their living through menial work (65% of the surveyed household depend on petty low-income and precarious livelihood). The report further questions the casual view that Muslims are engaged in self-supporting works of their own preference and posit that these are just other names for insecure living conditions.
Then, there is the question of dismal condition of education among Muslims in West Bengal. No literate adult was found in one fifth of the households, while 52% have not crossed the threshold of primary schooling. However, the growing number of enrolment shows social aspirations among Muslims. However, lack of opportunities and infrastructural deficiencies affect their aspirations.
In the areas where Muslims live, the condition of public health, roads, drinking water, and electricity is dismal. The report emphasises that such discriminations belie social justice to Muslims and help to create capability deprivation or lack of opportunity for self-emancipation. This, along with their adverse socio-economic condition, works in a circular way to keep Muslims in West Bengal in a miserable condition.
While the Sachar Committee Report was criticised by the Left Government (which ruled the state for almost 35 years) as based on ‘secondary’ sources, the findings of the ASGG Report, which is based on primary data, not only supports the conclusions of the Sachar Committee Report but points out that the condition of the Muslims has not improved at all since then.
In his article, Mr. Chatterjee rightly refers to the Sachar Committee Report and criticises the lack of a substantive approach of the government towards the problem.
…And ‘Muslim Appeasement’?
Further, Mr. Chatterjee writes that barring the Congress Party in Assam, no other party, except Trinamool Congress, has a larger share of Muslim vote in its kitty. He posits: “This reflects the demographic reality of West Bengal, and the traditional view of ‘secularism’ needs to be tweaked when looking at the political manoeuvrings of the Trinamool Congress. Actions which appear as ‘appeasement’ for a state with 15% Muslims, for example, do not hold true for a state with nearly 30% Muslims. That, too, when the Sachar Committee report on the condition of Muslims in India painted a sordid picture of West Bengal.”
It is unclear what Chatterjee means when he writes, “Actions which appear as ‘appeasement’ for a state with 15% Muslims, for example, do not hold true for a state with nearly 30% Muslims.” Does that mean Muslims in West Bengal particularly shouldn’t be ‘appeased’ because they are not a ‘minority’ community because of their large number (one in every four)?
The implication of Chatterjee’s anxiety becomes clear in the last lines of his essay:
“Food insecurity, lack of adequate and accessible health facilities, job opportunities and education will continue to be a problem. It’s not surprising that these issues are no different from those that afflict the other 70% of the people of West Bengal, irrespective of creed.”
In a sense, what Chatterjee is suggesting that the Muslim community in West Bengal doesn’t deserve any ‘special treatment’ (in other words, ‘appeasement’) as most other communities face the same problem of lack of health-care, education, and job opportunities. While such an argument is convincing from a ‘liberal’ perspective (which doesn’t believe in identitarian politics), it is disingenuous when made at the expense of a community, which is the weakest among all the Muslim communities in India. This normalization of the bleak economic condition of Muslims in West Bengal is bound to provide fodder to the rightist and majoritarian agenda which rides on such ill-conceived fears.
We also find the examples of ‘Muslim appeasement’ Mr. Chatterjee provides to be selective. Think, for instance, about Mamata Banerjee visiting the Ramakrishna Math and bowing to the Swami or attending the festival of the Matua community. Further, she has declared special economic packages for the adivasis (tribals) of Purulia or for the Gorkhas in the Darjeeling district. Could we (shoud we?) characterise them as appeasement too? And if we do so, would that not amount to an insult toward them? Or is ‘appeasement’ an effective critical tool to characterise the ‘culturalisation of politics’(if we my use the term) by Mamata? If Mamata is mobilising religious and cultural tropes, instead of attempting at improving the socio-economic condition of Muslims (or for that matter of any other community), this can be effectively criticised without taking recourse to such popular (should we say, lazy?) analytical lexicon of ‘Muslim appeasement’.
Here one may also keep in mind the popular view about Muslim vote bank/Muslim voting pattern. It is commonly believed that Muslims (in Bengal and all over India) vote merely as a religious community. Such a perception robs Muslims of any agency. It infantalises them and views them as an uncritical lot, who could be easily duped by the political manouvering of the supposed cultural traits (for instance, Mamata wearing a headscarf or meeting religious leaders of the community). Here, it would be prudent to point out that Muslims have always voted in a geographically varied way in West Bengal. While in Darjeeling and Cooch Behar, they have mostly voted for the CPIM, in Malda, Mushirdabad and Dinajpur, Muslims voted traditionally for the Congress. In South Bengal, Muslims mostly voted for the CPIM. That is until the Trinamool Congress became a major force. Electorally speaking, Trinamool has mostly taken away the votes of the CPIM. However, not many charged the Left parties with ‘Muslim appeasement’.
We have no hesitation in saying that neither the CPIM nor the Mamata Banerjee Governemt has come forward with any substantive plan for the betterment of the Muslim community. The Muslim community, too, has failed to change its condition with internl dynamism of its own. The bourgeoining Muslim elite/middle class and the community leaders now must come forward with holistic plans for the betterment of the community. This entails an effective engagement with the state to secure the rights of Muslims in West Bengal as equal citizens.
Mursed Alam is Assistant Professor of English, Gour College, Gour Banga University, Malda, West Bengal, India.
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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Gorkhaland’, edited by Dr. Rajendra Prasad Dhakal, Principal, Kalimpong College, Kalimpong, Darjeeling, WB, India.